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The Strokes Are At Their Imperfect Best On ‘The New Abnormal’

When The Strokes released their debut album in the fall of 2001, there were two ways to read the title. The common approach was Is THIS It, as in, is this the next great American rock band? But now, it’s more like Is This IT, as, is this all there is? That is the question at the heart of this band’s entire career. It’s what makes them great, and also what makes them seem like they’re never great enough.

With the possible exception of Weezer, no fanbase for a contemporary rock group derives as much pleasure from being perpetually disappointed as those of us who love The Strokes. From the start with Is This It, The Strokes were accused of being trust-fund kids ripping off the legends of NYC rock. With Room On Fire, they were criticized for ripping off their “classic” and “one of a kind” debut. With First Impressions Of Earth, people felt the band had drifted too far from the now unimpeachable standard of the first two albums. (Like Weezer, The Strokes will be haunted by the “first two albums” benchmark from here on out.) With Angles, The Strokes were now supposedly “less engaged” than they had been on First Impressions. With Comedown Machine, they were apparently even less engaged than they were on Angles.

To follow this band is to constantly feel that what they’re doing falls short of your expectations. What this means is that how The Strokes disappoint us in the present will inevitably become a gold standard against which the next way The Strokes disappoint us will be measured. Every new record makes the old ones sound better. That’s their process.

Which brings us to the latest Strokes LP, their first in seven years, The New Abnormal. It occurred to me while listening to this album that The Strokes aren’t merely a band that I love to feel disappointed in. They’re actually a band that makes records about disappointment, particularly that specific sort of dissatisfaction that derives from an inability to accept what you have because you’ve been sold a fantasy of something better. The very rot at the heart of the American dream. That’s where The Strokes live.

The “first two albums” Strokes were presented as a fantasy of New York City cool right as that archetype was lost to the 20th century in the wake of 9/11. It was the same mirage that compelled so many people to move there in the aughts, only to find they were relocating to a billionaires’ sandbox where everybody else was increasingly squeezed. You can be mad at the inequities of our sociopolitical systems, or you can be mad at The Strokes. Being mad at The Strokes was easier and more fun.

As they pivoted to being a mainstream rock band, they signified how guitar-based music was being squeezed out of pop music’s sandbox. The Strokes, once again, failed to “save” rock music. As their once-indomitable friendship seemed to crumble around the time of Angles, The Strokes might’ve become a metaphor for your own collapsing social circle at the onset of middle age. If The Strokes can’t keep the old gang together, how can I be expected to keep up with my drinking buddies now that I have all these kids? Each step of the way, the specter of the recent past — which didn’t even all that great at the time — suddenly appears more desirable. This feedback loop of near-sighted nostalgia is a defense mechanism against a future that you suspect will only be worse. This is also where The Strokes live.

The Strokes, in fact, have internalized this common cultural malady as brilliantly as any artists I can think of. I mean this as a compliment: The New Abnormal might be the first time they’ve done it on purpose.

When it was announced that The Strokes were working with Rick Rubin, it was natural to assume that The New Abnormal would be a deliberate evocation of Is This It. Failing that, perhaps Rubin would hand Julian Casablancas an acoustic guitar and encourage him to do dirge-y covers of Soundgarden and Danzig tunes. But The New Abnormal, thankfully, is not that. It sounds, in fact, like an amalgam of the ’80s synth-pop and stoner-experimental chicanery of the previous two Strokes albums. It also reprises the batting average of those LPs: Four undeniable bangers, and five weird and bombastic sorta ballads in which Casablancas addresses his own profound Strokes disappointment in bizarre, fascinating ways. Put another way, The New Abnormal has been consciously constructed to be another “disappointing Strokes album” that will sound better in about three years.

First, the bangers: You’ve already heard three of them. The album’s first single, “At The Door,” is a delightfully strange synthesizer warble that never fully turns into a classic-sounding Strokes song, instead wallowing in the sonic murk of Casablancas’ other band, The Voidz. The next single, “Bad Decisions,” is both a gooey confection and a massive overcorrection, evoking new-wave era ear candy like Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” and Modern English’s “I Melt With You” with such obviousness that Idol was granted a co-writing credit. The third single, “Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus,” exists in a similar Stranger Things zone, though Casablancas acts out his discontent closer to the surface: “I want new friends, but they don’t want me.”

My favorite track on The New Abnormal, “The Adults Are Talking,” is also the song that sounds most like the old Strokes. The band premiered it in May 2019, at a show in Los Angeles. About a year before that, Casablancas gave an interview to New York magazine in which he said that The Strokes were not “where my focus is.” He also compared himself to Natalie Portman, who makes both brilliant movies like Annihilation that buck mainstream convention (The Voidz in this analogy) as well as popular crap like Thor “that are more pay-the-bills” (guess who?).

Given that The Strokes reportedly have been pondering their sixth album since 2016, Casablancas felt this way two years into the project, and about a year before unveiling one of the best songs to come out of The New Abnormal. For most bands, this would be described as a troubling contradiction. But the peculiar genius of Julian Casablancas is that he wrote a fantastic Strokes song about being bored with The Strokes — not just his boredom, but also our universal, existential boredom with everything that is symbolized by The Strokes.

“The Adults Are Talking” gives you everything you could want if you love Is This It — the guitars interlock perfectly, the drums sound as if they’re being played by a cyborg with limited technical proficiency, and the bass part appears to have been copied note-for-note from Unknown Pleasures. Meanwhile Casablancas details the impossibility of being a Stroke in 2020: “They will blame us, crucify, and shame us / We can’t help it if we are a problem / We are trying hard to get your attention / Climbing up your wall.”

Casablancas picks up this thread in the back half of the record, which is darker, less melodic, and (I assume) probably closer to his heart. “Not trying to build no dynasty,” he sings on “At The Door.” “But we’ve lost this game / so many times before.” On “Not The Same Anymore,” a languid dream-pop ballad that Casablancas drives into a ditch with his histrionic vocals, he bellows, “And now it’s time to show up / Late again I can’t grow up / And now it’s on me they’ve given up.”

Your patience for this sort of thing will depend on how much you have invested in The Strokes saga. But, personally, I appreciate how these guys are leaning into their age. They aren’t trying to sound like the long-lost leather-jacketed masters of the universe that we remember. You bear every inch of their accumulated milage on The New Abnormal. The rock ‘n’ roll life has finally rubbed away the lingering rich-kid stink. It suits them.

On the album-closing “Ode To The Mets” — a reference to another perennial NYC disappointment — Casablancas affects a Sinatra-like posture as he launches into his version of “My Way.” “Gone now are the old times,” he croons, after motioning to Fab to pick up the pace. He speaks of old friends that are now forgotten, and old ways that have been left behind. “The only thing that’s left is us / So pardon the silence that you’re hearing / Is turning into a deafening painful shameful roar.” It’s the sound of The Strokes getting older, and us getting older, too.

The New Abnormal is out tomorrow on RCA. Get it here.